The odds of finding two dramas with female leads dealing with depression set to a sci-fi backdrop released in the same year seems unlikely. I thought Melancholia would fill that niche but that was until I watched Another Earth.
Rhoda (Brit Marling) is smart. She’s going to attend MIT and study astrophysics. That was the plan until one night she drives home after a party and slams into another car with a family of three. Mom and son die, leaving the husband John (William Mapother) in a coma he eventually comes out of. John never learns the name of the teenager responsible for killing his wife and son. Rhoda serves four years in prison. The once promising braniac is rendered a shell of herself. She is so ridden with guilt she can only muster up the courage to take a job as a janitor. Even though she doesn’t say it, Rhoda doesn’t believe she deserves a better life after having taken the lives of others.
Beyond sharing themes of depression, Another Earth also shares a planet coming closer to earth. Instead of impending doom from a planet on a collision course with our world, Rhoda and others are confronted with a planet that is a mirror image of Earth. In fact, for every person on Earth there is an exact replica on “Earth 2” (as it’s called in the film). Melancholia lost points with me due to its heavy handed nature. Another Earth loses some points for a completely absurd idea. Fortunately that idea does not take center stage. Though, one could argue that Earth 2 is allegorical just as much as Melancholia.
Aimless wandering finds Rhoda one evening near the scene of the fatal accident. She sees a man lay a toy near a telephone pole. This drives her to dig up information on the man who she discovers is John, a once accomplished music professor at Yale now retired to living a reclusive lifestyle. Rhoda spies on John and finds a man self medicating with alcohol. Her conscience is bothered and she works up the courage to go to John’s house and knock on his door. Her plan is to admit her guilt. Much like her plan was to go to MIT, things change. Only this time Rhoda makes a last second decision to change her plan and pose as a representative for a cleaning service. She offers a free, one day trial. John reluctantly accepts. From that point forward Rhoda cleans John’s home once per week. Eventually a friendship forms between the two. John starts to come to life as Rhoda looks to leave hers behind. She enters a contest for a spot on a shuttle to Earth 2 and wins.
The drama that unfolds between Rhoda and John as they draw closer and Rhoda gets an opportunity to move far, far away is heartfelt. The misstep occurs when time is given to an almost cosmic connection between Rhoda and a fellow high school janitor. This janitor serves as a spiritual guru of sorts. His words of wisdom come off as fortune cookie fodder and the supposed deep bond he and Rhoda share feels forced and inauthentic.
The end is satisfactory if not a bit hokie due to the idea of a mirrored Earth coming to the forefront. Be that as it may, credit to Mike Cahill for trying something a bit different in the small indie drama. The success still comes from the basics, with strong chemistry between Rhoda and John and an interesting story that holds its own without the aid of (what mostly amounts to) a science fiction gimmick.